First Person

New law, old problem: Why ESSA leaves teachers with an ongoing testing dilemma

In many of the schools where we work, the whole premise of the personalized learning system created by New Classrooms, the nonprofit I help run, runs into trouble when the winter chill sets in.

In the fall semester, most schools use Teach to One: Math to “meet students where they are.” Students are matched with the math concepts they are ready to learn, and grouped with students ready for the same skills.

But as winter begins, we face a tremendous amount of understandable pressure to push students to study concepts that they may not be ready for but will be included on their end-of-year state exams, which are designed to measure grade-level proficiency. One national testmaking group, the Smarter Balanced consortium, is trying to address this by including some below-grade level questions on its computer-based test. But generally, if a seventh grader needs to study the fourth-grade skill of how to find the area of a rectangle, there’s little external incentive for a teacher to devote class time to filling this gap.

So we face an annual dilemma: Do we design students’ individualized curricula around the skills they need — the point of our learning model, which has already demonstrated early positive results — or push them into grade-level material that will be on the test regardless of their readiness?

The annual tests that undermine our best efforts were required by the federal No Child Left Behind law that went into effect in 2002. So I was optimistic when Congress overhauled the law in December, and disappointed when I realized that ESSA might not change this dynamic.

ESSA did give power to states to add measures of student academic growth, including adaptive computer assessments. But the law still requires testing of students every year from grades 3-8 on grade-level proficiency. Adaptive assessments would be supplemental, meaning that developing a richer picture of student learning will likely lead to more testing, rather than smarter testing.

I see some reasons for hope. A provision under the new law will allow up to seven states to create alternative assessment systems. I’m cautiously optimistic that this will show the power and effectiveness of more holistic, competency-based assessments.

For now, though, we’re still working with a testing framework that is trying to do too much. States that want to understand student growth will have to assess both student growth and grade level proficiency. We have experienced this dual design, and the teachers implementing Teach to One: Math can attest to the complexity that this creates.

This is really difficult work. We want assessments to offer students a holistic understanding of themselves as learners. We also want teachers and families to be able to get a comprehensive perspective of a school. History teaches us that schools need rigorous standards to strive toward, and that schools need to be held accountable for having high expectations for all students. Balancing all of these needs is certainly complex.

One solution could be to create new ways to measure student growth from grades 5-7, and then have a proficiency-based eighth grade exit exam. Another is to use the kinds of short, daily, adaptive assessments we use in Teach to One to create a cumulative gauge of student understanding instead of using end-of-year snapshot assessments at all.

ESSA attempts to make everyone happy, but no one will get what they think is most important if annual proficiency assessments persist instead of a more nuanced, balanced system. For now, teachers across the country, including the ones that Teach to One works with, will continue to do their best to balance these multiple sets of expectations while weathering the winter chill. We await the results.

Disclosure: Chalkbeat rents space from New Classrooms. 

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.